Tracking the Great Masters

This text is translated from my article in the Norwegian magazine FUGLEHUNDEN some years ago

The obsession with bird dogs has brought me wide and far. From the mountain areas of the fantastical Peer Gynt, to the Birkebeiner skiers to the Hall of the Mountain King (Dovregubben). From the hunting grounds of King Christian IV to the battlegrounds of Napoleon Bonaparte. I have found myself in tiny villages who nobody has ever heard of and never can be found again. This obsession has pulled me into fascinating circles and to the masters in their fields. Both people and animals have become memorable characters. Spitz and hounds from the deepest forests of Lapland, with hunting trophies and championships, personalities and characters, stubborn and bigger know-it-alls than entire teams of experienced hunters. Beautiful show ring primadonnas. Sheep dogs on Australia’s biggest farms who confuse you whether it’s instinct, training or a higher intelligence. Purebred border collies with noble metals from World Obedience Championships have made it clear that dogs can enrich your life.

The creme de la creme of pointing bird dogs with ranging and bird work, so aesthetically complete that you have no need to see Rome and Venice but can sit down and die, exhausted with joy and contentment. Those have been the heights of my life with dogs.

At times I have been totally absorbed by the sport and working with the dogs. Other times I have lacked the time and desire to the full commitment. But it always comes back, it’s a matter of inspiration. In Britain, where I’m currently based, I wholeheartedly admit that some of the pointer & setter material doesn’t sit right with me. The split of the breed has not corresponded with how the breeds have developed in continental Europe. Pure show dogs, long derailed from their working ancestors, I find depressing. But also working dogs, without the noble characteristics of the breed, also seems a completely unnecessary route to take. You do spend 365 days of the year looking at your dogs, so if you insist on purebred, why not aim for dual purpose?

Both the Tasman wolf (pictured) and the Tasman Devil can be seen in the museum.

The past year (1997) I’ve had limited opportunities to be involved with bird dogs, which also meant I’ve written fewer magazine articles. As I write this, I’m sitting in the shade of Reading Prison (formerly known as Reading Gaol). Exactly 100 years ago Oscar Wilde was imprisoned here for his homo sexuality. A twenty-five minutes drive from here is Agatha Christie’s grave. With more than 2 billion books sold she is the most sold author in history. I might not need to enroll in the Dead Poets Club to be inspired to write, but it’s said that old wood burns better, old wine drinks better and old authors are the best to read. If anyone wonders, I’m getting closer to my actual story.

I had again decided to pay visit to another seemingly insignificant little place, in the name of the bird dog sport. And it was indeed one of the dead masters who was tempting me. My newly made acquaintances found it hard to understand what I was up to. How could a dead dog be more interesting than Soho and Covent Garden? And who was that William Arkrwight anyway?

From London Euston my companion and I took the train towards Northampton and disembarked at a remote station called Tring. A three kilometer walk amongst grazing horses and dozing, unemployed sheep dogs already made the trip a relaxing change from London’s crowds. Reaching Tring, we found our destination; The Walter Rotschild Zoological Museum. Now part of the Natural History Museum. All I knew about it, was that Arkwright’s famous Seabreeze was stuffed on display there. While I tried to contain my anticipation about a 100 year old dog, especially considering the changes in British bird dog breeding since then, I was excited like a child. But the museum was so much more and would be interesting to anyone.

Lord Lionel Walter Rotschild (1868-1937) started gathering insects at the age of seven and when the museum opened in 1892 he had more than half a million of them. In addition there were more than 2000 stuffed animals, birds, fish and sea creatures. Two of Britain’s leading curators, Ernst Hartert and Karl Jordan, were immediately employed to put the museum collection into system. During the next 45 year of cooperation they described more than 5000 new species and published more than 1700 scientific articles. By the time Lord Rotschild died in 1937, the collection of species from all over the world was enormous. There were 2,5 million butterflies and mots and some 300 000 birds.

There were also nearly 30 000 books in his library. Shortly before he died he gifted the entire museum with its collections to the British Museum, requesting that it would be part of the Natural History Museum. It was the largest private collection of its kind. Many of the best specimens is on display in Tring and it’s quite overwhelming. I had sat aside two hours for my visit but could easily have spent the double. There were elephants and rhinos, sea lions and penguins, ostriches, vultures, sharks and alligators, birds with intact nests and eggs. The museum is today centre for bird studies. The Natural History Museum have had their ornithology department here since 1971. In their museum laboratory they have access to more than a million stuffed birds, a million eggs, several thousand skeletons and thousands of birds kept in alcohol. Here are previously unknown species and species now extinct.

Amongst snow leopard, cheetah, puma, caracal and other wild cats there’s also a specimen from Norway. There a three types of lynx; one from Tibet, one from Spain and the one from Norway. Amongst grouse and other game birds maybe the ptarmigan, black grouse and capercaillie could have Nordic origin. I don’t know where the polar bear and musk ox come from but amongst the ocean creatures, there’s also a skate from Norwegian waters. Amongst the antelopes one can see the world’s smallest type, no bigger than a 5 week old bird dog pup. In a microscope one can see two fleas dressed up as husband and wife. Hes, two fleas – dressed up by a woman in Mexico in 1905. Families with small children around us shudder to spiders and scorpions, snakes and lizards. They look in awe up on fully grown gorillas and tigers, while I’m getting closer to the specimen I have come to see.

In a separate glass section are several specimens from different dog breeds. Most of them were prize winners in their time. Two Afghan Hounds were the very first of the breed that were brought to England. Most of these dogs have been immortalised like this between 1900 and 1920 but the oldest specimen is from 1843.

Then I find her, between a German shorthaired pointer and two English setters stands a beautiful white & red pointer bitch. Champion Seabreeze, alive between 1896-1905. Championship winner in 1898, 1899 and 1901. 

With her right front leg lifted she stands, not intensly on point, but elegant and gracious. It is 92 years since she was taxidermied and she is in a great condition. Her red colour is faded, not during the past nine decades but during the time she lived. It is obvious she’s had pups. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of Arkwright’s “The Pointer and His Predecessors” at hand, but here she stands before my eyes, Seabreeze. A beautiful representative of the breed and nothing else could have been expected.

The GSP was presented in 1920 by J. Hamilton Leigh. A male called Hector Fodersdorf, winner of several field trials in East Prussia. The two setters are Norman, two year old male, gifted by F. Forester in 1913 and Colonel Poste, a male from M. Lampard in 1927. These are the only bird dogs, where Seabreeze appears with the best conformation. I take this as a message from Arkwright to battle on both fronts; work and the correct look & build. If the beauty and correct standard of the breed is lost in the working dog, the breed loses a lot of its attraction and thereby losing admirers working with the breed.

What the walls of the Reading prison also reminds me of was Oscar Wilde’s last words. It was a couple of years after he had been released, as he lay dying in a Paris hotel room: “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.”

Edit: Since I wrote this article, I also learned that the American pointer writer A.F. Hochwalt visited the museum to see Seabreeze in the mid 1920s. At that time they only had one setter, Norman, as Colonel Poste arrived a couple of years later. Norman was in fact Pitchford Norman, 70% Laverack bred in 1910 by T. Steadman and first owned by Colonel C.J. Cotes as he was by his Pitchford Roy (by Ightfield Rob Roy) out of Mallwyd Nora (by Mallwyd Diamond). Colonel Poste was 60% Laverack, bred in 1924 by H. Peake and owned by Miss M. Lamparde. He was by Primley Mahratta (by Maesycwmmer Mallard and with a lot of Mallwyd blood) and Garnllwyd Queen (by Rhymney Knight).